- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 10, 2003

It used to be that when people saw one on the street, they would stop and stare and ask what it is. Now, when they spot someone cruising along on the Segway scooter, they know what it is: It’s that thing President Bush fell off of.Some scholars are predicting that Mr. Bush may help popularize the $5,000 Segway Human Transporter (HT), which four months after its release remains an anomaly and certainly not the revolutionary mode of travel it was predicted to be.Mr. Bush’s tumble aboard the Segway while vacationing with family in Kennebunkport, Maine, last month, and the ensuing news coverage might not have been the kind of publicity Segway’s makers wanted, but may prove to be a coup nonetheless.

“It is priceless publicity,” says Bob Jarvis, a presidential historian and professor of constitutional law at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. “Segway probably didn’t want it to happen, but President Bush did bounce up and get back on it. Anytime a president does anything with a product and seems to like it, it helps sales tremendously.”

So the question is whether Mr. Bush’s high-tech tussle, caught on camera, will do for the Segway what Ronald Reagan’s sweet tooth did for the jelly bean and what Mr. Bush’s father’s Texas tastes did for pork rinds.

Mr. Jarvis says presidents can have enormous effects on demand for products, for both better and worse. He noted that when John F. Kennedy abandoned tradition and opted not to wear a hat during his presidential inauguration, it devastated the hat industry.

The Segway, the two-wheeled, auto-balancing scooter that makes use of five gyroscopes, has garnered unprecedented media attention.

Pop singer Justin Timberlake tested one before a TV audience of 4 million at the MTV Movie Awards. The scooter was featured on an episode of the hit show “Frazier.” Tennis star Andre Agassi was photographed aboard one. Late-night comics Jay Leno and David Letterman both have used the vehicle on their shows.

Yet the Segway — battery-powered and traveling at speeds up to 12 mph, touted as a transportation revolution — is still a rarity.

John Harrington, a free-lance photographer in the District, says he constantly gets looks of astonishment and awe as he “glides” around downtown on his Segway.

He has had his HT for two months and uses it to cruise from one photo shoot to another. He even shoots events from atop the scooter, which puts the 6-foot-7 Mr. Harrington another 8 inches above the rest of the crowd.

“It creates a conversation piece and you talk to people you’d never talk to,” Mr. Harrington says. “They break the ice and come up to talk to you and ask about it.”

At the MotoFoto store on H Street, a place Mr. Harrington frequents, he is called the “Segway paparazzi.” He drops off film for developing and makes a few purchases, all from atop the Segway. He had to duck to get through the door.

People on the street certainly are curious when Mr. Harrington glides past them. Some even gather up the courage to ask him to try it out, to which he graciously steps down and offers a quick tutorial.

But there is some question as to whether gliding, or “segging” as it also is called, will ever catch on.

“One thing is clear. … It’s very hard to look cool while Human Transporting,” Wall Street Journal technology columnists Tim Hanrahan and Jason Fry recently wrote. “People look too tall. Too lazy. Too odd.”

Also working against the Segway is the fact that high-tech products are usually popularized by young people. At $5,000, the scooter is way outside the price range of most teenagers.

Marco Cenzatti, a professor of urban planning at Harvard University, says he does not expect to see large numbers of people cruising around on Segways anytime soon. Instead, he says, Segway at best can hope to find a home in a niche market.

“There is a market for cops on the beat and for mail delivery,” Mr. Cenzatti says. “But it doesn’t have the cultural appeal.”

The Segway has been tested in law-enforcement and mail-delivery applications. The U.S. Postal Service has completed a seven-city trial with 40 Segways and is reviewing the results before deciding to go forward with a large deployment of the scooter.

Police in Atlanta and Boston have tested the Segway on their patrols. Boston police used Segways during parades and on walking beats, as part of a test program in conjunction with Segway. Medics used them to patrol the Boston Marathon.

“I think the Segway would make perfect sense for some beats in Boston,” says Bill Casey, Boston’s deputy superintendent of police.

Peter Sealey, a marketing professor at the University of California at Berkeley, says the scooter — “a rich person’s toy” — was overhyped to the point of being considered more revolutionary than the personal computer.

Mr. Sealey says the Segway’s inventor, Dean Kamen, would have been wise to release it to industries such as law enforcement and the postal service, as well as companies with vast warehouses, and later introduce a consumer version once the price came down.

“I think that today the Segway must be deemed a failure,” Mr. Sealey says. “It can be resurrected, perhaps. But it needs to be resurrected.”

But Mr. Harrington is a Segway fan. The photographer says it has made him far more efficient whether at work or running errands. He uses his Segway for trips that are “too far to walk and too close to hop in the car.”

He says he usually rides the scooter right into stores and he never has been told by a merchant to leave it outside.

While the Segway and its advocates say the scooter will replace short car trips and thus reduce pollution, pedestrian activists say it will replace walking trips — one of the cleanest and healthiest modes of travel.

“We’re concerned about them hitting a little old lady and knocking her down,” says Michael Smith, president of Walk San Francisco.

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors has banned the scooter on sidewalks, where Segway says its product belongs. Other cities across the country are said to be considering similar bans. The state of Georgia has enacted laws restricting the Segway’s use, limiting speeds on sidewalks, requiring helmets for minors, and mandating a state of sobriety similar to that for driving cars.

Even with only 20 to 30 Segways reportedly in use in the greater Washington area, the scooter is posing policy issues for transit officials. It initially was banned from the Metrorail system, which prohibits all motor vehicles.

Now system administrators are reviewing that policy and allowing “responsible” use of the Segway. Mr. Harrington carries a letter from a Metro official that states he is allowed to take his Segway aboard the trains. He has never had to use the letter, and says Metro police have been so curious about the contraption as to ask for their own demonstrations.

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